A richly detailed, lucid account of how the British Empire grew and grew—and then, not quite inexorably, fell apart.
Historian Brendon (Eminent Edwardians: Four Figures who Defined their Age: Northcliffe, Balfour, Pankhurst, Baden-Powell, 2003, etc.) opens on October 17, 1781, when Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington’s troops at Yorktown. That date, by Brendon’s account, is the beginning of the end of the empire, “an unbeaten revolt of children against parental authority” and the first such rebellion in modern history, though not the last. Brendon adds that it was merely the first growth of what he calls the “libertarian commitment to trusteeship,” the British administration’s preference for some form of local autonomy that nearly always resulted in the demand for independence. Brendon leisurely tours one imperial outpost after another over the course of two centuries, ending with the reversion of Hong Kong to Chinese rule by way of stops at New Zealand (which, he writes, once contemplated petitioning the United States for admission as a state), Canada, the Transvaal, Palestine and elsewhere across the globe. The imperial impulse, the author observes, was not all bad; one fine moment came when Britain exercised its considerable power to demand that the Greek government compensate a Jewish man born in Gibraltar for damage done to his property during an anti-Semitic riot in Athens. Perhaps thanks to such nobler impulses, many nations seemed glad to join the empire, which, in the first part of Victoria’s rule, “grew on average by 100,000 square miles a year.” Yet many others were eager to shed that rule, especially toward the end, when Britain behaved poorly in places such as South Africa, India and particularly Kenya, and when outposts such as Cyprus became milieus of what Brendon, quoting Lawrence Durrell, describes as “ ‘blameless monotony’ conducted in an atmosphere of ‘suffocating inertia.’ ”
A comprehensive rejoinder to the work of Niall Ferguson and other modern students of British imperial history.